3 stars (out of 4)
"Epidemic," playing this week at Facets Multimedia, was the second film by Danish wunderkind Lars von Trier ("Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark"). Previously unreleased in America, this 1987 movie has the earmarks of being directed by someone just a few years removed from film school (von Trier graduated from Copenhagen's film academy in 1983). It has more in-jokes and self-referential asides than should be found in a feature, but thanks to von Trier's instinct for cinematic flair, even such a rough venture proves mesmerizing.
The tale is classic movie-within-a-movie, about a young director and screenwriter (played by von Trier and his actual screenwriter, Niels Vorsel). The two have been commissioned to write a movie for the Danish Film Institute, but a computer malfunction erases the 200-page script of "The Cop and the Whore." Since neither remembers (or liked) the original story, they decide to bang out a new one in record time. That script is "Epidemic," about a great plague that infects Germany.
Debating and researching such a creepy topic would be entertainment enough, but von Trier ups the ante by adding a "B" story about a real epidemic that coincidentally breaks out. An overly idealistic young Dr. Mesmer (also played by von Trier) turns his back on his insensitive colleagues to help the general populace.
Or is there a real virus? The beauty of "Epidemic" is the fanciful way von Trier teases the viewer, never making it clear if the plague subplot is playing out simultaneously or is just part of the movie plot. This ambiguity allows von Trier to address issues of fantasy, reality and the creative process with equal fervor. This may confuse those new to von Trier but not those who have wrestled with the complexities of his later work (including the very frustrating "The Idiots").
Shot in grainy black and white, "Epidemic" owes its visual surprises as much to David Cronenberg and David Lynch as the story does to Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello.
Peppered throughout are odd little scenes that have more to do with von Trier's concept of cinema (this was made before his Dogma 95 conversion) than with the story itself. One features a wine expert pontificating on the intricacies of tasting. Another has actor Udo Kier (one of von Trier's regulars) delivering a monologue about his dead mother.
And a third introduces a hypnotist who forces a willing subject into a horrifying trance.
"Epidemic" will never be confused with von Trier's great films. But it is an intriguing introduction to his later cinematic obsessions.
Directed by Lars von Trier; written by von Trier, Niels Vorsel; produced by Jacob Eriksen; photographed by Henning Bendtsen; production designed by Soren G. Henriksen; edited by von Trier, Thomas Krag; music by Peter Bach. Opens Friday at Facets Multimedia. In Danish and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1:46. No MPAA rating. (Some scenes may be disturbing for younger viewers.)
Lars/Dr. Mesmer -- Lars von Trier
Niels -- Niels Vorsel
Susanne -- Susanne Ottesen
Claes -- Claes Kastholm Hansen
Udo -- Udo Kier